As a tween, I often spent time topless in front of my bathroom mirror examining my breasts. The urge to study them cropped up unannounced, so most nights I stood half dressed in jeans, pajamas bottoms, or sometimes in pink ballet tights and a pulled-down leotard. I’d scrutinize my breasts in contrast to the ones I saw in the pages of my American Girl book,The Keeping and Care of You, which was a preteen guide to puberty. The book housed a few pages concerning breast development, and it displayed cartoon pictures of breasts in a variety of shapes and sizes, mostly appearing in that odd in-between phase of growth. The onset of puberty jolted a new awareness about my skin and triggered suspicions about my body. My body seemed to grow and stretch without my consent, and suddenly it no longer felt like a comfortable place to live. Before my pubescent years, I enjoyed existing in my thin and boyish frame. I liked how my flat chest and tight stomach moved through the world. It seemed as if overnight my sharp hips were rounding out and my stomach was softening. But it was my breasts that I struggled with the most. To me, they suggested two red flags denoting to others of my impending sexuality and maturity, neither of which I wanted.
“Where did you get those things?” my mom joked as I stripped off my shirt, tossing it into the washing machine one night. At some point during my sophomore year of high school my breasts had grown larger than hers. “You certainty didn’t get those from me!” she laughed. She was right, they weren’t hers. My breasts derived from a long line of Sephardic Jewish breasts, which are notoriously oversized and dense. Both my paternal grandmother and paternal aunt had undergone breast reduction surgery, tired of hauling around pairs too large for their frames. While I didn’t struggle with size like them, I did belong to the long lineage of women who had complex relationships with their breasts. My mom was able to make this joke just a few years after she had completed chemo and radiation therapies for her own early onset of breast cancer. At the time it felt like the cancer was a breast issue solely belonging to her, which I attributed to bad luck, and maybe it was. At 39, the time of her diagnosis, she was a runner and training to be a fitness instructor; it was the most in-shape she had ever been. None of us could make sense of it. My consideration was for her health, and as an arrogant youth, I was able to distance myself from her breasts, and like she said, I didn’t get mine from her.
Post high school and college I found ways to cohabitate with my breasts, but I never felt close to them. I hated how they sat too far apart; I can put an entire palm in between them. I’ve wished they were higher, bounced with more perk. But in general, I disconnected myself from them, allowing them to exist on me like barnacles along an ocean pier. The discomfort of puberty had caused me to rebel against my body; I didn’t want to live there and felt no need to care for it. I spent the next decade and a half treating it poorly in a variety of ways. Then at 27, when I had almost forgotten about them, something new started happening at my yearly gynecological appointments. Doctors would inquire, as always, about my family’s breast health, but now they would say, “Soon you’ll have to get a mammogram or a sonogram.” Suddenly, I was re-confronted with my breasts in a way that was harder to ignore, but I managed for a while longer, because soon hadn’t yet come.
It isn’t easy to navigate breast health today; different doctors have told me disparate protocols. Some prescribed a required mammograms 10 years prior to my mom’s diagnosis date, others have suggested a sonogram at age 35, and another stated the regular mammogram age of 40 would suffice, as the BRCA gene doesn’t run in my family. Over this past summer I went to my gynecologist for my yearly pap and breast check. I decided the year prior to settle on a practice I trusted, deciding whatever they said about my breasts I’d comply with because I knew I had to make a choice. If I didn’t, I could have stayed going around on the medical merry-go-round for the rest of my life.
“Your breasts feel great,” my doctor said as I wrapped up my exposed self in the soft gown waiting for her to tell me what I would need to do within the next 3–5 years. “I want you to go get a sonogram. I’ll write you the prescription today. What location is better for you?” she asked showing me two options.
“Now? I thought I could wait until I was 37, earliest 35.” I said confused.
“I like my patients to get a base line 10 years before their mother’s diagnosis date, so you’re actually 2 years behind my recommendation,” she said. “It’s just a baseline, so we know what your tissue looks like.”
I left feeling dizzy with the news. My lackluster feelings towards my breasts had been a long-held, guilt filled secret. In our culture of body positivity and self-acceptance, I felt shame, like the proverbial bad feminist, for not embracing this acutely female part of myself. I spent the next 30 days ignoring my doctor, thinking about how young 39 was, and feeling disappointed for the years spent not appreciating my breasts. Before the month’s end, I called the imaging center and scheduled the appointment for another 30 days out. During this self-imposed waiting period I didn’t touch my breasts or even pay them a passing glance as I walked around my apartment half dressed. “Maybe if I’m very quiet and ignore them, they’ll go away,” I thought.
The morning of my appointment the receptionist asked me if I was currently feeling anything as she gestured to my chest without saying the word. Just fear and existential angst, I thought. “No, this is just a routine procedure my doctor wanted,” I said loudly with a keen awareness of the other women in the waiting room. It felt invasive to recieve such a question at a front desk.
“So, no leaking, bumps, or discharge at all?” she asked monotone, staring at her screen and typing.
“Nope,” I said as my palms began to clam up. I assumed I wouldn’t feel anything if something actually was amiss, which set a new fear aflame in my chest. After 15 minutes of flipping through magazines without reading a word, a nurse called my name. She sent me down the hall to disrobe. As I changed into the half gown, I stared at my breasts in the bathroom mirror. It was the first time I’d looked at them in months. Reaching my arms over my head, I realized they sat lower than when I was a tween examining myself against cartoon pictures. Maybe they weren’t so bad, I decided, despite the space in between and slight uneven size.
In the thin half robe, I sat and waited in another room, flipping through more magazines and thinking about my mom, who likely sat and waited in a room similar to this one. I thought about how scared she must have felt even though she never told me. Inside the examine room, the tech squirted warm gel on my breasts and moved the sonogram wand around, staring at the screen, taking pictures in the exact way I watched countless techs do for my wife when our baby was cooking inside of her. All the sonogram techs are looking for signs of a new life, and I hoped she wouldn’t’ find any inside of me.
“Everything looks good, but make sure you keep up with these early detection measures,” the tech said, as if she could sense I didn’t want any part of the process. I left with a sunny sense of gratitude for my health, but emotionally drained. Walking out I thought again about The Keeping and Care of You. Nowhere did the book mention you had to be obsessed with your body’s appearance or its individual pieces. The book’s sole purpose was to equip young women with the knowledge to take care of themselves. Maybe the opposite of dislike and discomfort didn’t have to be sabotage. Likely I would never subscribe to unconditional self-acceptance, but maybe attempting to care for my body, even one I didn’t always love, was a new type of radical love.